A Fact-Check for the Four-Color World

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Guest Post: Nature vs. Nurture

Hot on the heels of the last guest contribution comes another new voice in Ben Carver, aka ChaosBurnFlame. He has a lot to say on the subject of genetics, so I'm splitting his comments into two posts, the second half of which I'll post tomorrow. And fair warning: tomorrow's portion will deal heavily in spoilers for this past Saturday's season finale of Justice League Unlimited.

That said, let's talk genetics:


Yes, we have heard all the old stories before. “Evil Clone” this, “Father’s footsteps” that. Yet I can’t help but feel, the more and more genetics are introduced in comics as crucial part of the stories we read, that the writers don’t know a thing about genetics. Now some of you reading might ask “Why would a comic book writer need to read up on genetics?” Well, they don’t really. They just need to learn enough to stop inserting their own opinions into the work and disguise it as pseudo-science.

One of the biggest debates in recent years regarding genetics and behavioral science is the one of ‘nature’ over ‘nurture’. It seems to me however the majority of the comic industry is currently holding ‘nature’ is stronger than ‘nurture’. A good, or rather, bad example of this is in Geoff Johns and his writing of Superboy in the Teen Titans comic series.

Superboy, or Kon-El, or ‘Conner Kent’ as he is known as now, was a character created and written by one Karl Kesel, one of the most unappreciated and gifted comic book writers of the last decade. Superboy’s character when written under Karl Kessel was a great example of nurture over nature. People who have not read the important issues of Superboy (Issue #0, and the ‘Hypertension’ arc) and Adventures of Superman (Issue #499) probably wouldn’t see why I would object to Geoff Johns and his handling of Kon-El. It all boils down to one thing: Kon-El was never a clone of Superman.

That’s right. It was repeatedly stated during Karl Kesel’s handling of the character that Kon-El’s genetic heritage and background is 100% human. And the genetic donor of Superboy’s DNA was none other than Paul Westfield, a corrupt and evil director of Project CADMUS.

Superboy during the Kesel years was handled beautifully well, a story that started about a teen that was artificially created, learning responsibility, friendship, and truth. He even spent a good deal of his time working as a CADMUS field agent, having nearly daily exposure to geneticists, clones, and other relevant parties concerning ‘nature’ vs ‘nurture’.

When Geoff Johns got a hold of the character, the first thing he did was retcon Kon-El’s past. Instead of being a human, Johns changed Kon’s genetic structure to be half human, half kryptonian, and Kon’s new human ‘donor’ to be Lex Luthor. Despite the fact that Kon has had SEVERAL genetic examinations, including an unplanned one in Hawaii by Emil Hamilton on the spur of the moment (Superboy #0), an examination of an alternate Kon-El from a parallel Earth and comparing genetic markers to Superboy’s (Hypertension Arc), it is easy to say that there is no way to fit the Half Luthor/Superman DNA thing into the Superboy history without ignoring Superboy’s past wholesale (and ignoring a 100 issue series and over 80 appearances in other books including Adventures, Young Justice, and many others).

But it’s not just the structure of Kon-El’s DNA that changed under Johns. It was his entire attitude. Now Kon fantasizes about destroying his high school simply because his teachers annoy him. Now Kon-El is struggling with the feeling of nature vs nurture, when under Kessel, Kon had to deal with his ENTIRE genetic code being contributed by Paul Westfield. Now, simply because its Lex Luthor, we’re supposed to believe, thanks to the ‘Future Titans’ arc under Johns that Kon-El is capable of Luthor’s level of evil, thanks only to the fact that he has Luthor’s DNA.

Not only does it have no foundation in Kon-El’s history, it has no foundation in his characterization, or in genetics. The belief that the morality of a father directly affects the child is an idea that’s laughed upon by most genetic authorities. The so-called ‘evil gene’ doesn’t exist, and the whole idea that there’s a gene in someone that makes them want to burn down their schools, or want to become a global terrorist.

Not only that, it also gives little to no room the argue against nature being a strong defining force in what makes people’s personalities and morality. I haven’t seen a single strong scientific argument to prove that the children of criminals, based on genetics alone, are predestined to enter crime.

There is no moral way to feasibly do a double blind study on the subject of Nature versus Nurture without creating entire nearly identical cities and cloning several test subjects just for that purpose. From what I see, two different writers, one character, and only one writer handled the character well in the terms of genetic realism. Karl Kesel understood that nurture is the defining point, not nature.
If you think that the pages of comics are the only place where this attitude of nature over nurture is infecting the industry, then you need to see the Justice League Unlimited season finale, ‘Epilogue’....